SAPPORO, Japan – Retirement can be a death knell for guide dogs, creatures who spend their lives caring for others, but a home in Japan is giving these canines a new lease on life in their twilight years. The Sapporo Retirement Home for Dogs, in the northern island of Hokkaido, has sheltered more than 200 animals since it opened in 1978, giving them the best possible care until they are either adopted by sighted humans or die.

“This is the last gift we can give these dogs who worked for people all their life,” said the home’s director Keiko Tsuji as she caressed the coat of Rick, a dog who is now paralyzed due to old age and can only feed from a tube. “Most of these dogs only live for 2 or 3 years after their retirement, and I want them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives,” she added.

Japan’s guide dogs must retire at the age of 11 or 12, because that is when their abilities, and physical strength, start to fail, according to the home’s staff. These aged dogs are then taken away from their masters because, after years of guiding, they will continue to perform their duties, putting themselves and their owners at risk.

The separation is difficult for both human and animal, and Tsuji, who has cared for dogs for more than 20 years, said that easing the transition from working dog to retiree is what the facility aims to do.

“What they need most is affection. They have lived very closely with people for a long time, so it’s very hard for them to feel isolated suddenly. It is essential for them to keep interacting with people,” she explained.